The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents

June 2, 2021

Lash’s 10-year passion project makes a valuable contribution to the study of constitutional law

The Reconstruction Amendments: The Essential Documents

A project 10 years in the making, Kurt Lash’s newest publication is making waves in the constitutional law field – for good reason. Published by the University of Chicago Press as a follow-up to Philip Kurland and Ralph Lerner’s The Founders Collection, Lash’s The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents presents, for the first time in one place, the original documents relating to the framing of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Known together as the “Reconstruction Amendments,” their ratification between 1865 and 1870 abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under law, and ensured that the right to vote cannot be denied based on race. In addition to curating original source documents – from speeches to debates to newspaper articles – Lash transcribed those materials by hand and wrote introductory essays for each section of the collection, resulting in two volumes totaling over 1,300 pages.

And that was the easy part.

The project was conceived “to go beyond the simple debates by the politicians who framed the amendments,” said Lash. Instead, it includes the voices of abolitionists, women’s rights groups, and newspaper editors of the time. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it includes the ratification documents from the 37 states. Lash devoted a good five years of his research to reviewing newspapers for records of the state debates. “Finding the state ratification debates was tremendously exciting,” said Lash. “They simply hadn’t been accessible before.”

The finished product includes other hidden treasures that Lash calls “utterly sublime” – but one is particularly close to his heart. In initial debates, the Senate passed the Thirteenth Amendment, but it went on to fail in the House. After his reelection, Lincoln encouraged the House to hold a second vote. The transcription of that vote includes not just debate remarks, but the gallery’s reaction as each vote was cast, resulting in a series of hisses and cheers.

When the final two Democratic representatives changed their votes to be in favor of the amendment, resulting in its passage, the scene was “pandemonium,” recounted Lash – “people are jumping on their desks, women are waving their handkerchiefs, … cannon fire erupts in the city.” Occupying the seats on the floor were not just members of the House, but also territorial representatives. And those ranks would have included New Mexico representative Francisco Perea – Lash’s own great-great grandfather. 

That personal connection is just one highlight of an immense passion project for Lash, who has created a collection of teaching resources to accompany the book. He’ll also take part in a series of discussions – including a two-day conference at Notre Dame Law School, and a special guest lecture at the Law Library of Congress on Constitution Day in September 2021. “It’s a huge honor,” said Lash.